The Yokohama Nursery Company: Japanese Plants for Western Buyers

by Larissa Glasser, Library Assistant
October 31, 2013

Interior illustration from a Yokohama Nursery Company catalog

The Yokohama Nursery Company: Japanese Plants for Western Buyers

Potted tree

Chamaecyparis obtusa var. nana Carr. Genuine dwarf tree about 70 yrs. old. Value yen 50. Grounds of the Yokohama Nursery Co., Yokohama. [Information from inventory list.] Alternate Title: Potted tree. Photograph by Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930). June 7, 1918. 20.5 x 15.5 cm. Emulsion on glass. Copyright © 2006, President and Fellows of Harvard College, Arnold Arboretum Archives; all rights reserved. Contact repository for permissions and fees.

Cover of the 1901 Yokohama Nursery Company catalog

Cover of the 1901 Yokohama Nursery Company catalog.

Interior illustration from a Yokohama Nursery Company catalog

Interior illustration from a Yokohama Nursery Company catalog.

In 2013 we are celebrating the centennial of the US arrival of the Larz Anderson Collection of Bonsai with lectures, exhibits, and a very special display of eight of the plants at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

In 1913, Larz and Isabel Anderson purchased the majority of their collection, about forty plants, from the Yokohama Nursery Company, prior to their departure from Japan at the end of Larz’s term as American “Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary.” He describes the bonsai for sale at Yokohama Nursery in his diary:

“About us were dwarf trees of fantastic shape and stunted plum in fragrant bloom, white and pink, and gnarled trees hundreds of years old with branches blossoming out of seemingly dead trunks in pots of beautiful form and color. Isabel and I stopped so long in this little fairy place that we had to drive like the dickens through the congested streets of endless villages to Yokohama, which we reached without disaster in a little over an hour…”

The Yokohama Nursery Company was formed in 1893 from the pre-existing Yokohama Gardeners Association, a cooperative of four Japanese nurserymen who had banded together to sell Japanese plants to the west. One of the nurserymen, Uhei Suzuki, became the president of the new company, which offered a wide variety of ornamental and economic plants, seeds, and bulbs to buyers in the United States and Europe. They issued annual catalogs in English of 100 pages or more detailing their offerings, featuring beautiful woodblock prints by the noted publisher Tokejiro Hasegawa and numerous photographs. The catalogs had a section on bonsai for sale, although instead of the term bonsai, specimens were referred to as “dwarf trees” grown in “jardiniers,” and were “the relic of the Tokogawa era.” Extensive horticultural instructions for the trees were also included in the catalog. Arboretum plant explorer Ernest H. Wilson visited the nursery in June 1918 and photographed seven plants, including several spectacular potted Chamaecyparis obtusa of a type similar to those purchased five years before by the Andersons.

The Yokohama Nursery Company is still around today and is celebrating its 120th anniversary, although its business is no longer international. A company history in Japanese may be found on their website.

Lisa Pearson, Head of Library and Archives

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